“Really, it’s like being on a permanent cruise”, the nurse in charge of rehabilitation remarks. I look at her skeptically: if she were trying to convince me, she hasn’t found fertile ground. I hate cruises and their veneer of forced cheer. But I also suffer from an incurable case of sea-sickness, so I might be biased. The remark, though, struck a chord with the relative I have been helping relocate to an assisted living facility. Or, rather, a Senior living apartment facility which is different from a Long Term Care Facility. I learnt a lot during the last month during the course of intense research on behalf of a relative whose circumstances had changed, and could no longer live alone.
It made me think long and hard about what I might want for myself when the time comes. The moment I started my search, aided by an agency called A Place For Mom (who were wonderful, by the way, and I would heartily recommend them if you’re in a similar predicament and live in the US); I was confronted with the differences in care, prices, types of assistance and many other things I never gave a single thought to. For about a week, my cell phone rang off the hook: all lovely sounding people who wanted us to visit their facilities, try their food, meet other guests and, ultimately, get our money.
If old age was once a family affair, it has now been fully relinquished to third parties, and upgraded to big business. Depending on budget or insurance, the choices vary wildly. As our case fell somewhat in the middle, nothing too posh but nothing too depressing either, all the places I visited exhibited the same traits: living quarters that varied between the size of a postage stamp and one bedroom suites, communal dining rooms offering specialty menus, transportation outside and different level of cares (that are charged separately). They boasted activities like movie nights, piano recitals, writing courses, yoga classes , bingo, knitting…. Notably absent was the book club, despite vast libraries being available to the residents. The buildings veered between old-world charm (code for decrepit) to aseptic (with candle-like scents piped in the corridors). The age of the guests also varied: late ’50s to 103, with all kinds of physical or neurological disabilities dotting the panorama, and a ratio of three women to one man. Who knew the dating world would still be so competitive even in old age?
The truth is we live longer but not necessarily with the ability to care for ourselves in the last decades of our lives. Our bodies or our minds haven’t lost the annoying habit of failing us at inappropriate times. We all envisage a long and healthy third act, spiffy and alert into our 90s, but the reality is that such (genetic) luck is not for the majority. And as families are more and more parcelled out around the country, on different continents or just living in smaller households: we are left with the choice of paying a number of people to care for our elderly at home or to pay a facility to provide round the clock service.
When I imagine MY old age, I picture a rambling house on the Cornish coast, where I live surrounded by other aging friends. “Why does it have to be bloody Cornwall? What’s wrong with Thailand?” sofagirl muttered when I mentioned my idea, probably remembering a rain-soaked long-ago end of Summer week-end. I am beginning to think my fixation is rooted in my early reading of Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca”, after which I forevermore imagined myself living at Manderley. As adulthood has not delivered, I now envisage my dream coming true a bit later than anticipated. although I should probably be framing it more along the lines of a most exotic Marigold Hotel.
“I am not afraid of growing old anymore” said Lupe, the bright red lipsticked manager of the place my relative ended up choosing. Right then, I realized we are so scared of old age because we have gone to great lengths to put as much distance between us and IT as we possibly could. Not only do we fight it with great energy and enthusiasm, but, when it’s close by, we hand it over to someone else, and we visit occasionally. We rarely participate in the mental and physical shift that occurs.
Walking down the hallways of a lovely retirement home in Encino, a spunky 92-year-old approached me, her oxygen tank trailing right behind. Magda was neatly dressed and fully made up “You know, I must tell you how much I love this place. I own a beautiful condo in Beverly Hills but I never want to go back. I would wake up in the morning and take forever to make breakfast. Then I would have to rest and time to make lunch would roll around. Here, I am taken care of, I don’t have a worry in the world and I made good friends. The only reason I have this silly tank is that I smoked. Make sure you don’t smoke”. Magda heads the welcoming committee that organizes little get togethers when a new resident arrives.
At this point in time, I still vote for Cornwall. Or Venice. How romantic would it be to take my last breath as the lagoon sinks? Very Thomas Mann. Failing that, I will happily settle for Magda as my next door neigbour.
All images found in the public domain